The food regime concept is a key to unlock not only structured moments and transitions in the history of capitalist food relations, but also the history of capitalism itself. It is not about food per se, but about the relations within which food is produced, and through which capitalism is produced and reproduced. It provides, then, a fruitful perspective on the so-called ‘world food crisis’ of 2007–2008. This paper argues that the crisis stems from a long-term cycle of fossil-fuel dependence of industrial capitalism, combined with the inflation-producing effects of current biofuel offsets and financial speculation, and the concentration and centralization of agribusiness capital stemming from the enabling conjunctural policies of the corporate food regime. Rising costs, related to peak oil and fuel crop substitutes, combine with monopoly pricing by agribusiness to inflate food prices, globally transmitted under the liberalized terms of finance and trade associated with neoliberal policies.
This is a preview of subscription content, log in to check access.
Buy single article
Instant access to the full article PDF.
Price includes VAT for USA
Subscribe to journal
Immediate online access to all issues from 2019. Subscription will auto renew annually.
This is the net price. Taxes to be calculated in checkout.
Here I am raising the question about the scope and content of ‘food regimes,’ through and beyond the extant definition: ‘a rule-governed structure of production and consumption of food on a world scale’ (Friedmann 1993, pp. 30–31). But the rules tend to be implicit (Idem.), and as such express practices embedded in social and political relations, structures of accumulation (Arrighi 1994) and institutions—depending on the historical period under examination. Through a derived Braudelian perspective we can observe relatively ‘stable pattern(s) of production and power’ (Idem.) at different removes across time and space.
Braudel’s longue dureé was of course geographical time. I would only modify this to refer to the time–space of capitalism, in reorganizing the global social and ecological geographies.
Note that transmission of world prices of commodities to domestic prices is not complete, mainly because of US dollar depreciation against a range of currencies (FAO 2008, p. 10).
Rising hunger rates, across the global South, are concentrated in Sub-Saharan Africa. As of mid-2009, roughly 14% of humanity (almost 1 billion) is considered hungry or malnourished, especially women. The majority of the hungry (65%) are in India, China, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Bangladesh, Indonesia, Pakistan and Ethiopia. While global food prices peaked in 2008, staple foods still cost more than 25% on average than in 2007.
The New York Times editorialized: ‘The rise in food prices is partly because of uncontrollable forces—including rising energy costs and the growth of the middle class in China and India. This has increased demand for animal protein, which requires large amounts of grain. But the rich world is exacerbating these effects by supporting the production of biofuels’ (2008 April 9, p. A26).
The Wall Street Journal reported that, in January, ‘China said it would require producers of pork, eggs and other farm goods to seek government permission before raising prices. …Thailand is taking similar steps on instant noodles and cooking oil, while Russia is trying to cap prices on certain types of bread, eggs and milk. Elsewhere, Mexico is trying to control the price of tortillas, and Venezuela is capping prices on staples including milk and sugar. Malaysia is setting up a National Price Council to monitor food costs and is planning stockpiles of major foods…’ (Barta 2008).
From my own point of view, it has traced the construction and reconstruction of world food orders, with distinct organizing principles (empire to state to market) across the periods of British, United States, and neo-liberal political-economic hegemony (McMichael 2005). Each period embodied institutional structures and rules governing the organization of food production, circulation and consumption relations, expressed in turn in a world price for food. And each period has included contradictory relations whose maturity has signaled the demise of that food regime, and an unstable process of transition. A widely-considered question is: at what point are we today?
‘Agrofuels’ alerts us to the agricultural dimensions of what are conventionally termed ‘biofuels’, as if such fuels represented life, as opposed to competition for scarce crop land, de-forestation, and so on. Here I am distinguishing (land-displacing and forest-destroying) commercial agrofuels from local biofuels, long an integral part of agro-ecology and peasant farming, and still an important ingredient of food and energy sovereignty.
For an extended discussion of the market episteme, see Da Costa and McMichael (2007).
‘Metabolic rift’ is Marx’s term for the separation of social production from its natural biological base, reducing nutrient recycling in and through soil and water, and extends to reconstituting energy sources as commodified inputs (cf. Foster 2000).
See Fangione et al. (2008).
This narrative is not simply about peasants having no place in a modern world, whether because they are inefficient, or cultural throwbacks, but also about socially-constructed hunger under neo-liberalism, represented as ‘population overshoot.’
Araghi (1995) has documented cycles of peasantization and de-peasantization for the post-WWII era. Conservative estimates from the FAO are that 20–30 million peasants have been displaced during the WTO regime, and in Mexico, upwards of 2 million campesinos have left the land under the destabilizing effects of NAFTA (Madeley 2000, p. 75; Carlsen 2003).
Araghi, skeptical of the notion of a food-aid regime, claims this was an ‘aid-based food order of an exceptionally reformist period of world capitalism’ (Araghi 2003, p. 51). I argue that in this, as in other regime moments, a particular geo-political configuration organized a set of production and circulation relations of food that maintained capitalism’s empire (McMichael 2005). That is, the materiality and/or expression of value relations are subject to specific socio-political configurations of the wage relation in the politics of the state system.
Colloquially it has been called the ‘neoliberal food regime’ (Pechlaner and Otero 2008), but in fact this designation obscures the subsidized agricultural surpluses of the North versus the liberalized and unprotected agricultures of the South.
Between 1983 and 2003, the FAO recorded 408 import surges in 102 countries for rice alone, in Africa, and Central America in particular: ‘it was due in part to these floods of imports that the high prices of today had such a fatal effect in some countries’ (Paasch 2008, p. 5).
Food riots certainly address public forms of food provisioning, but not wage setting.
This is a moment of crisis in this regime—in Friedmann’s language, implicit subsidy practices (rendered ‘implicit’ by the WTO box system), are likely to become more explicit as the global South continues to paralyze the Doha Development Round (by refusing to negotiate so long as these subsidies are in place), and as taxpayers question corporate subsidies for an increasingly destructive form of industrial agriculture/agrofuels.
Cf. Amin (2004).
The EU’s CAP reform fully embraced the US model of decoupling payments to producers, as it phased out export subsidies. As Aileen Kwa noted, ‘Internal prices are now much lower, especially on grains….when these grains are exported, decoupled payments are effectively the new generation of export subsidies’ (2007).
Under NAFTA, the Mexican government followed the U.S./EU policy of privileging the price-form by eliminating the floor price for, and obligation to purchase (under CONASUPO), staple crops such as maize and beans, replacing these guarantees with direct-assistance to farmers under PROCAMPO. Removal of price supports exposed campesinos to commodity markets controlled by the transnational grain traders, reducing real market maize prices to campesinos by 46.2% between 1993 and 1999 as U.S. corn shipments to Mexico grew 15-fold (Public Citizen 2001, pp. 17, 24).
Note that Malawi subsequently reversed this situation by reinstating fertilizer subsidies, against the advice of Britain and the U.S., ‘contributing to a broader reappraisal of the crucial role of agriculture in alleviating poverty in Africa and the pivotal importance of public investments in the basics of a farm economy’ (Dugger 2007).
Nadal remarks: ‘Today conglomerates like ADM, Cargill, Bunge, Monsanto and Syngenta have so much control over markets and infrastructure that they can manage stocks, invest ingrain futures and manipulate prices on a world scale so that they can obtain huge profits. But neither the WTO nor the FAO are interested in tackling this problem’ (2008).
U.S. government subsidies for agrofuels will approach $100 billion for 2006–2012 (Leahy 2008).
Note that plans to produce jatropha in Africa via small scale producers are up against international trading standards, which privilege corporate actors, managing global commodities (patented varieties). Thus, a Southern African Development Community (SADC) biofuel feasibility study claimed small-scale projects will negatively affect standards (GRAIN 2007, 42).
Some (Pritchard, this Issue) would argue that the ‘corporate food regime’ represents a hybrid formation, an atavism of the food aid regime insofar as the Agreement on Agriculture institutionalized dumping, concealing its origins in colored boxes, and, with the collapse of Doha, moving towards a fully neo-liberal regime in which agricultural trade is fully liberalized. The ‘food crisis’ appears to have interrupted this process given the unilateral moves to regulate trade and outsource food production by states no longer confident that ‘food security’ via the world market is viable.
See, for example, the UK’s Gallagher Report (2008).
Altvater, E., and B. Mahnkopf. 1997. The world market unbound. Review of International Political Economy 4 (3): 448–471.
Ambler-Edwards, S., K. Bailey, A. Kiff, T. Lang, R. Lee, T. Marsden, D. Simons, and H. Tibbs. 2009. Food futures. Rethinking UK strategy. A Chatham House Report. http://www.chathamhouse.org.uk/files/13248r0109foodfutures.pdf. Accessed 17 March 2009.
Amin, S. 2004. The liberal virus. Permanent war and the Americanization of the World. New York: Monthly Review Press.
Angus, I. 2008. Food crisis. ‘The greatest demonstration of the historical failure of the capitalist model’. Global Research, April 28.
Araghi, F. 1995. Global de-peasantization, 1945–1990. The Sociological Quarterly 36 (2): 337–368.
Araghi, F. 2003. Food regimes and the production of value: Some methodological issues. Journal of Peasant Studies 30 (2): 41–70.
Arrighi, G. 1994. The long twentieth century. Money, power and the origins of our time. London: Verso.
Barta, P. 2008. The unsavory cost of capping food prices. Wall Street Journal, February 4.
Berthelot, J. 2008a. Sorting the truth out from the lies about the explosion of world agricultural prices. Solidarité, May 18. http://solidarite.asso.fr. Accessed 7 June 2008.
Berthelot, J. 2008b. The food crisis explosion: Root causes and how to regulate them. Kurswechsel 3: 23–31.
Bové, J., and F. Dufour. 2001. The world is not for sale. London: Verso.
Bradsher, K. 2008. A new global food quandry: Costly fuel means costly calories. The New York Times, January 19: A1, A19.
Braudel, F. 1969. Histoire et sciences sociales: La longue durée. In Ecrits sur l’histoire. Paris: Flammarion: 41–83. Original in Annales E.S.C., XIII, 4, Oct.–Déc. 1958, 725–753.
Carlsen, L. 2003. The Mexican farmers’ movement: Exposing the myths of free trade. In Americas program policy report. Silver City, NM: Interhemispheric Resource Center. http://www.americaspolicy.org. Accessed 10 April 2009.
Cha, A.E., and S. McCrummen. 2008. Financial meltdown worsens food crisis. Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy, Minneapolis, October 26. www.tradeobservatory.org/headlines.cfm?RefID=104306. Accessed 3 November 2008.
Da Costa, D., and P. McMichael. 2007. The poverty of the global order. Globalizations 4 (4): 588–602.
Davis, M. 2001. Late Victorian holocausts. London: Verso.
Davis, M. 2006. Planet of slums. London: Verso.
Dugger, C.W. 2007. Ending famine, simply by ignoring the experts. The New York Times, December 2.
Evans, A. 2009. The feeding of the nine billion. In Global food security for the 21st century. Chatham House Report. www.chathamhouse.org/uk/files/13179_r0109. Accessed 8 May 2009.
Fangione, J., J. Hill, D. Tilman, S. Polasky, and P. Hawthorne. 2008. Land clearing and the biofuel carbon debt. Science, February 7.
FAO. 2008. The state of food insecurity in the world, 2008. Rome: Food and Agricultural Organization. http://www.fao.org. Accessed 10 May 2009.
Foster, J.B. 2000. Marx’s ecology: Materialism and nature. New York: Monthly Review Press.
Friedmann, H. 1978. World market, state, and family farm: Social bases of household production in an era of wage labor. Comparative Studies in Society and History 20 (4): 545–586.
Friedmann, H. 1992. Distance and durability: Shaky foundations of the world food economy. Third World Quarterly 13 (2): 371–383.
Friedmann, H. 1993. The political economy of food: A global crisis. New Left Review 197: 29–57.
Friedmann, H. 2005. From colonialism to green capitalism: Social movements and emergence of food regimes. In New directions in the sociology of global development, ed. F.H. Buttel and P. McMichael. Oxford: Elsevier Press.
Friedmann, H., and P. McMichael. 1989. Agriculture and the state system: The rise and fall of national agricultures, 1870 to the present. Sociologia Ruralis 29 (2): 93–117.
Friedmann, H., and A. McNair. 2008. Whose rules rule? Contested projects to certify ‘local production for distant consumers’. Journal of Agrarian Change 8 (2–3): 408–434.
Gallagher, E. 2008. The Gallagher review of the indirect effects of biofuels production. UK: UK Government, Renewable Fuels Agency.
Goodall, C. 2008. Burning food: Why oil is the real villain in the food crisis. Guardian, May 30.
GRAIN. 2007. Agrofuels special issue. Seedling, July.
GRAIN. 2008a. Making a killing from hunger. Against the Grain. http://www.grain.org/atg/. Accessed 18 May 2008.
GRAIN. 2008b. Seed aid, agribusiness and the food crisis. Seedling. October.
GRAIN. 2008c. Seized. The 2008 land grab for food and financial security. Briefings, October. http://www.grain.org/briefings/?id=212. Accessed 11 May 2009.
Greenfield, H. 2007. Rising commodity prices & food production: The impact on food & beverage workers. International Union of Food, Agricultural, Hotel, Restaurant, Catering, Tobacco and Allied Workers’ Associations (IUF), December.
Greenpeace. 2007. How the palm oil industry is cooking the climate. http://www.greenpeace.org. Accessed 18 May 2008.
Halperin, S. 2005. Trans-local and trans-regional socio-economic structures in global development: A ‘horizontal’ perspective. In New directions in the sociology of global development, ed. F.H. Buttel and P. McMichael. Oxford: Elsevier Press.
Harvey, D. 2003. The new imperialism. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Holt-Giménez, E. 2007. Biofuels: Myths of the agrofuels transition. Food First Backgrounder 13 (2): 1–4.
Holt-Giménez, E., and I. Kenfield. 2008. When ‘renewable isn’t sustainable.’ Agrofuels and the inconvenient truths behind the 2007 U.S. energy independence and security act. Policy Brief No 13. Oakland: Institute for Food and Development Policy.
Howard, A., and B. Dangl. 2007. The multinational beanfield war. Soy cultivation spells doom for Paraguayan Campesinos. In These Times, April 14.
IATP. 2008. Commodities market speculation: The risk to food security and agriculture. Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy, November. http://www.tradeobservatory.org/library.cfm?RefID=104414. Accessed 5 December 2008.
Kaufman, F. 2009. Let them eat cash. Can Bill Gates turn hunger into profit? Harpers Magazine, June: 51–59.
Kneen, B. 2002. Invisible giant. Cargill and its transnational strategies. London: Pluto Press.
Krugman, P. 2008. Grains gone wild. The New York Times, April 7: A21.
Kwa, A. 2007. The Doha round—if truth be told. Focus on the global south. http://www.focusweb.org/the-doha-round-if-truth-be-told.html?Itemid=132. Accessed 12 April 2008.
Leahy, S. 2008. Biofuels and food prices. Inter-Press Service News Agency. http://www.ipsnews.net/news.asp?idnews=40929. Accessed 15 June 2008.
Madeley, J. 2000. Hungry for trade. London: Zed Books.
Manning, R. 2004. The oil we eat: Following the food chain back to Iraq. Harpers 308 (1945): 37–45.
Marx, K. 1967. Capital, vol. 1. Moscow: Progress Publishers.
McMichael, P. 1999. The global crisis of wage-labour. Studies in Political Economy 58: 11–40.
McMichael, P. 2003. Food security and social reproduction: Issues and contradictions. In Power, production, social reproduction, ed. I. Bakker and S. Gill. London: Palgrave MacMillan.
McMichael, P. 2005. Global development and the corporate food regime. In New directions in the sociology of global development, ed. F.H. Buttel and P. McMichael. Oxford: Elsevier Press.
McMichael, P. 2008a. Peasants make their own history, but not just as they please…. Journal of Agrarian Change 8 (2/3): 205–228.
McMichael, P. 2008b. Agrofuels, food security and the metabolic rift. Kurswechsel 3: 14–22.
McMichael, P. 2008c. The peasant as ‘canary’? Not too early warnings of global catastrophe. Development 51 (4): 504–511.
McMichael, P. 2009a. Banking on agriculture: A review of the world development report 2008. Journal of Agrarian Change 9 (2): 235–246.
McMichael, P. 2009b. A food regime genealogy. Journal of Peasant Studies 36 (1): 139–169.
McMichael, P., and H. Friedmann. 2007. Situating the retailing revolution. In Supermarkets and agri-food supply chains, ed. D. Burch and G. Lawrence. Cheltenham: Edward Elgar.
Myers, N., and J. Kent. 2003. New consumers: The influence of affluence on the environment. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the USA 100 (8): 4963–4968.
Nadal, A. 2008. Precios de alimentos: adiós al factor China. La Jornada, June 11. http://tinyurl.com/5lr3k8. Accessed 15 January 2009.
Paasch, A. 2008. World agricultural trade and human rights: Case studies on violations of the right to food of small farmers. Confronting the global food challenge. FIAN. www.fian.org/resources/documents/world-agricultural-trade-and-human-rights/pdf. Accessed 12 February 2009.
Patel, R. 2007. Stuffed and starved. Markets, power and the hidden battle over the world’s food system. London: Portobello Books.
Patel, R. 2008. The story of rice. Raj’s Blog, April 5. http://www.stuffedandstarved.org. Accessed 10 April 2008.
Patel, R., and P. McMichael. 2009. A political-economy of the food riot. Review 32 (1).
Patnaik, P. 2008. The accumulation process in the period of globalisation. Economic & Political Weekly 28: 108–113.
Pechlaner, G., and G. Otero. 2008. The third food regime: Neoliberal globalism and agricultural biotechnology in North America. Sociologia Ruralis 48 (4): 351–371.
Philpott, T. 2006. Feeding the beast. Grist, December 13.
Philpott, T. 2007. Bad wrap. Grist, February 22.
Pollan, M. 2002. The life of a steer. The New York Times, March 31.
Pritchard, B., and D. Burch. 2003. Agri-food globalization in perspective. International restructuring in the processing tomato industry. Aldershot: Ashgate.
Public Citizen. 2001. Down on the farm: NAFTA’s seven-year war on farmers and ranchers in the U.S., Canada and Mexico. June 26. Washington, DC: Public Citizen. http://www.citizen.org/documents/ACFF2.pdf. Accessed 7 June 2003.
Ray, D. 2008. Data show that China’s more meat-based diet is NOT the cause of ballooned international corn prices? Agricultural Policy Analysis Center. http://www.agpolicy.org/weekcol/480.html. Accessed 12 March 2009.
Reardon, T., and C.P. Timmer. 2005. Transformation of markets for agricultural output in developing countries since 1950: How has thinking changed? In Handbook of agricultural economics. Agricultural development: Farmers, farm production and farm markets, ed. R.E. Evenson, P. Pingali, and T.P. Schultz. Oxford: Elsevier Press.
Ritchie, M. 1988. Impact of GATT on food self-reliance and world hunger. Minneapolis: Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy.
Rosset, P. 2006. Food is different. Why we must get the WTO out of agriculture. London: Zed Books.
Shattuck, A. 2008. The financial crisis and the food crisis: Two sides of the same coin. Food First, September. http://www.foodfirst.org. Accessed 15 November 2008.
Slackman, M. 2008. In Egypt, technology helps spread discontent of workers. The New York Times, April 7: A6.
Vía Campesina. 2000. Declaration of the international meeting of the landless in San Pedro Sula. Honduras, July.
Vía Campesina. 2008. A response to the global food prices crisis. http://www.viacampesina.org/main_en/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=483&Itemid=1. Accessed 15 April 2009.
Vidal, J. 2007. Climate change and shortages of fuel signal global food crisis. Guardian Weekly, 11 September: 3.
Wahl, P. 2008. Food speculation. The main factor of the price bubble in 2008. Briefing paper, world economy, ecology & development. Berlin. http://www.weed-online.org. Accessed 7 June 2008.
Waldman, A. 2002. Poor in India starve as surplus wheat rots. The New York Times, December 2.
Walker, R. 2005. The conquest of bread. 150 years of agribusiness in California. New York: The New Press.
Walton, J., and D. Seddon. 1994. Free markets & food riots: The politics of global adjustment. Oxford: Blackwell.
Thanks are due to Don Nonini for his comments on an earlier version of this paper, and to Hugh Campbell for his comments on the next version. Thanks are also due to three anonymous reviewers of a subsequent version, and to Harriet Friedmann.
About this article
Cite this article
McMichael, P. A food regime analysis of the ‘world food crisis’. Agric Hum Values 26, 281 (2009). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10460-009-9218-5
- Food regime
- Value relations
- Social reproduction